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Preserving your food

More fruit and veg than you know what to do with? Turn it into jam, preserved lemons, pickles and apple chips. Here's how.

preserved and picked vegetables in glass preserving jars
Last updated: 20 May 2020

Need to know

  • Preserving, pickling and dehydrating seasonal fruit and veg means you can buy it when it’s cheap and in abundance and eat it throughout the year
  • These processes are straightforward, so all you need are basic kitchen equipment and utensils – just follow our top tips
  • We include recipes for delicious jam, preserves, pickles and dehydrated fruit

Has your vegie patch produced a bumper crop of tomatoes? Did your green-fingered neighbour leave a basket of carrots and cucumbers on your doorstep? Or perhaps you bulk-bought berries or your favourite apples at the greengrocer or supermarket? After all, not only is seasonal fruit and veg fresher and tastier, but it’s often cheaper too. 

If you’ve eaten your fill of fresh produce and still have some left over, why not turn it into jams or pickles, which you can tuck away in the pantry and continue to enjoy all year round – in season or not?

Fiona Mair, CHOICE home economist, guides you through some simple ways to preserve the fruit and veg you have in abundance.

how to make jam

How to make jam

Making jam is a great way to use up leftover berries, citrus or other fruits (and even chilli!). And, according to Fiona, it's a fairly simple process.

"Essentially all you're doing is boiling fruit and sugar together until the mixture reaches a deliciously thick and sticky consistency," she says.

To ensure you get the best results every time, follow her top tips.

Tips for making the perfect jam

  • Use fresh, seasonal fruit that's washed and dried well. Underripe fruit is preferable as it's higher in acidity and pectin, giving a better (more viscous) set. Ripened fruit is still fine, but will give a softer set.
  • Soften your fruit first to draw out the pectin, before adding the sugar. Make sure the fruit skin is heated and softened, as once you add the sugar the skins won't soften further. Of all the fruit skins, citrus peel will take the longest to soften (between one and two hours).
  • Adding a tablespoon of butter to every kilo of fruit will help prevent any scum forming in the jam. 
  • After you've added the sugar, stir over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved, then stop stirring and bring it to a rolling boil. This is when you should start your timer.
  • To test if your jam has reached its setting point, put a teaspoon of jam onto a saucer that has been in the freezer. Push your finger through the jam to create a 'channel'. If the jam wrinkles and the channel stays in place it's ready. If not, continue cooking.
  • Always pour jam into clean, sterilised jars. To seal them, turn the jars upside down for a few minutes.
  • Make sure you label and date your jars and store them in a cool, dark, dry place such as a pantry. Store in the fridge once opened. 

Mould on jam

Question: If my jam has mould on the surface, can I just scrape it off and keep eating it?

Answer: No. Many people will tell you they've always done this and have come to no harm. But moulds, and the toxins they release, can penetrate more deeply than the eye can see - particularly in liquid or semi liquid foods such as jam - and can be harmful if eaten. It's safer just to chuck it.

Recipes for jams and preserves

How to make pickles

Pickling is the process of using vinegar and salt to preserve food, and add flavour at the same time. 

"Pickling fruit and veg is straightforward, you just need to follow a few simple rules," says Fiona.

Here are the basics.

how to make pickles

Top tips for pickling

Fruit and veg
  • Produce must be fresh when pickled. Choose farm fresh or organic, and choose fruit and vegetables that are uniform in shape and preferably small.
  • Wash and scrub the food well to get any dirt off and remove any leaves or flowers too.
Salt
  • Use a fine-grain salt as it will dissolve quickly. If using sea salt, make sure it has dissolved completely. 
  • Most salts are OK as long as they don't contain additives such as anti-caking agents. You can also use iodised table salt, but it may turn the brine a cloudy colour. 
Vinegar
  • Use white distilled or cider vinegar. 
  • White vinegar is good for pickles that require a clear colour such as pickled garlic or cauliflower. Malt vinegar is good for pickled onions and apple cider vinegar is best for a sweet pickle such as cucumbers and cabbage.  
  • For a crisp pickle, use cold vinegar. For soft textured pickles, use hot vinegar.
Pickling spice
  • Herbs and spices give your pickle a lovely flavour and aroma. The most common spices used in pickles are peppercorns, fennel seeds, bay leaves, mustard seed and coriander seeds. You can also use sprigs of herbs such as dill or tarragon. 
  • Store-bought pickling spice (Hoyts brand, just over $2 for a 35g packet) contains mustard seeds, black peppercorns, dill seeds and whole allspice.
Method
  • For crisper pickles, put the vegetables (whole or sliced) into a wide bowl and spread a layer of salt on top. Cover and let sit overnight in a cool place. Discard the liquid that comes out of the vegetables, then rinse and dry them before pickling or canning as usual. The salt helps to pull the moisture out of the vegetables and makes them crisper.
  • Measure or weigh carefully, because the proportion of fresh food to other ingredients will affect flavour and, often safety.
  • Make sure you don't run out of brine! Use a measuring cup to measure the volume of water your jar(s) will hold, then make sure you prepare enough brine in advance.
  • Always pour into sterilised jars.
Storing
  • Give quick pickles at least a couple of hours for the flavour to develop before eating. For other pickles, leave for at least 4 weeks if you can. Pickles will last unopened for about a year.
  • Make sure you label and date your jars and store them in a cool, dark, dry place such as a pantry. Once opened, they can be stored in the fridge.

Recipes for pickles

how to dehydrate fruit and vegetables

How to dehydrate fruit and veg

There are many reasons you might want to dehydrate fruit and veg. First, they have a satisfying crunchy texture, and make great, healthy snacks for adults and kids alike. Second, they're lightweight and easy to carry, making them good for travelling and camping trips. Third, they have a long shelf life, if you store them correctly. Fourth, they're extremely versatile. 

"Dehydrated vegetables can be rehydrated in soups and stews, stir-fries and rice dishes," Fiona explains.

"And dehydrated fruits are great in cereals, as toppings for yoghurt and ice cream or made into sauces." 

Best foods for dehydrating

You can dehydrate most fruits, including berries, bananas, stone fruits, mangoes and pineapples. Tomatoes, carrots, beetroots, kale, onions, peas, corn and broccoli also dehydrate well.  

How to dehydrate food

The easiest way to dehydrate fruit and veg is to use a food dehydrator or an oven.

  • Food dehydrators are usually large plastic boxes with stackable trays, or several trays that slide in and out. They have a heating element and a fan that circulates the warm air through the unit to dry out the food. Dehydrators operate at about 50–60°C for most foods (70°C for meats). The time taken will vary depending on the moisture content, but is about 10–16 hours. They can cost anywhere from $130 right up to $800 , and they tend to be noisy.
  • Ovens with a fan-forced function will do the same job. The oven temperature needed for dehydrating most fruits and vegetables is about 90°C. Just remember that your oven will be busy for up to 6 hours.

Fiona suggests that if you don't have a dehydrator, and don't want your regular oven tied up for hours on end, you can instead use:

  • a benchtop oven with a fan, although you won't be able to do multiple-shelf cooking and therefore bigger batches. Leaving the door ajar reduces the amount of condensation build-up.
  • an air fryer with a dehydrating function, although the surface area only allows for small batches.

Drying times 

Depending on the food thickness, water content and what type of dehydrator (or oven) you have, dehydrating can take anything between 3 and 16 hours. 

"The longer the food is dehydrated, the crispier it becomes," says Fiona. "A shorter time will give a chewier texture.

"Always check the food dehydrating every couple of hours." 

Top tips for dehydrating fruit and veg

  • When preparing fruit and veg for dehydrating, wash and dry them first, then slice them thinly and evenly so they'll dehydrate evenly. If you dehydrate foods regularly, Fiona recommends investing in a decent mandolin or a food processor with a slicer attachment.
  • Foods such as apples can oxidise and discolour quickly. To stop this happening, brush them with lemon juice after slicing.   
  • Rotate the tray positions every couple of hours to ensure even dehydration.
  • You can dehydrate different foods at the same time. Just make sure you don't have foods with strong aromas such as onions and garlic dehydrating alongside more delicate foods such as strawberries, as the smell can be absorbed by other foods and affect taste.
  • Fruits with mostly water content such as watermelon are best made into a fruit leather. Blend with another fruit and spread thinly on a tray to dehydrate, then cut into strips.
how to sterilise jars

How to sterilise jars

Before making any jams, preserves or pickles, you'll need to sterilise the jars you'll be storing them in.

You can do this easily on the cooktop, in the microwave or oven, and even in the dishwasher, using the following methods:

Cooktop

  • Put jars and lids separately in a stock pot, cover with cold water, and bring water to the boil over high heat.
  • Reduce heat to medium and boil for 10 minutes.
  • Remove the jars using tongs and let them dry on a clean tea towel. 

Oven

  • Preheat the oven to 100°C. 
  • Place jars (upright) and lids (separately) on an oven tray and heat in the oven for 20 minutes. 

Microwave

  • Add ¼ cup of water to each jar and put in microwave
  • Heat jars (not lids) on high for 2 minutes, or until water is boiling
  • Take care when removing the very hot jars – use tongs or oven gloves
  • Wash lids well and boil in a saucepan for 10 minutes

Dishwasher

  • Put jars (and lids) through a hot dishwasher cycle.

A word on lids

Fiona recommends that you use new jar lids for a tight seal. 

"Make sure the lids are food grade – the type with a white, waxy plastic protective coating on the inside," she says. 

To ensure a good seal, always wipe the rim of the jar clean after filling it and just before putting the lid on. 

Other ways to preserve food

Preserving, pickling and dehydrating are just three of the more simple methods you can use at home to prepare fresh produce for long-term storage.

For more about food preservation, see our articles on:

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